‘Borrowing from the future’: What an Emerging Megadrought Means for the Southwest

PHOENIX – It’s the early 1990s, and Park Williams stands in the middle of Folsom Lake, at the base of the Sierra Nevada foothills in Northern California. He’s not walking on water; severe drought has exposed the lakebed.

“I remember being very impressed by the incredible variability of water in the West and how it’s very rare that we actually have just enough water,” said Williams, who went on to become a climate scientist at Columbia University. “It’s often the case there’s either too much or too little.”

Williams is the lead author on a report out this month in the journal Science detailing the extent of drought conditions in the American West.

The report found the period from 2000 through 2018 to be the driest 19-year span since the late 1500s, and the second driest since 800. In simpler terms, it’s an emerging megadrought, which is a drought that typically lasts decades.

“Drought conditions during the 2000s have actually been on average as severe as the driest on 20-year periods of the worst megadroughts of the last millennium,” Williams said in an interview with Cronkite News. “The cause is a combination of natural climate variability and human caused climate change.”

What sets this emerging megadrought apart from others, such as those recorded in the 1200s and 1500s, is that human activity is increasing the severity. Although past megadroughts had natural causes, the report found this natural phenomenon has been made worse by humans.

Nancy Selover, Arizona’s state climatologist since 2007, said there’s more to learn about the impact people have had on this recent drought, although she does classify Arizona as being in a megadrought now.

“I’m sure we’re contributing a little bit. I’m not sure how much we’re contributing,” Selover said. “It’s model output. And models are designed not to predict what’s going to happen, they’re designed for us to understand them and learn how the system works.”

It’s important to understand the difference between deserts and droughts, said Kathy Jacobs, the director of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona.

“I think making a distinction between sort of living in a desert where it’s hot and dry, and understanding that we could be entering into decades long shortage situations that really throw all of our water supply projections for a loop is a really important distinction,” Jacobs said.

To make that distinction, Williams and his team employed methods first used in 1937 by researchers at the University of Arizona, who discovered the width of the annual growth rings in tree trunks corresponded to moisture availabilities, or soil moisture.

“Our measurement of drought is really a combination of tree ring records that come up to 1900,” Williams said. “And then that, stitched together with our climate derived estimates of soil moisture, brings us up to 2018.”

He said a megadrought isn’t a multidecade period in which every year is dry, but instead an extended period when the occasional wet years don’t come close to making up for the predominance of dry years.

If the concept of an emerging megadrought seems abstract, there’s a reason. Williams said people might not feel the immediate impact of water sources depleting due to groundwater pumping in California, Arizona and other states.

“We’ve been pulling out groundwater at a far faster rate than it actually gets replenished, and that has allowed us to get through this drought,” Williams said. “We’re basically borrowing from the future.”

Selover said it’s a future that’s likely to include more people in the Southwest.

“We now have more people here, so drought is a more significant issue than it ever was before,” she said. “We need to be very, very careful about how we deal with our water and how we deal with our temperature. Because those things going forward are going to be decreasing water and increasing temperature.”

The Colorado River is one example of decreasing water resources. Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico depend on the river for water, but the amount of water each state is promised has been consistently overallocated.

“Each state is actually guaranteed more acre feet of water out of the Colorado River every year than actually flows in the Colorado River in an average year,” Williams said. “We’ve had an unsustainable relationship with the Colorado River for the last century, independent of climate change.”

Jacobs said it’s a relationship that hasn’t been properly addressed, especially considering the cultural significance the Colorado has to many people in the Southwest.

“It’s really important to recognize both, tribal, and environmental uses of water in both the main stem (of the river) and the tributaries,” Jacobs said. “Letting the river actually be a river and flow is something that’s valued by some people. Whereas now, we have essentially dried the entire river out so it does not reach the sea.”

Williams suggests that water in the 1,450-mile-long Colorado be reallocated as one way to improve the river’s condition. That’s difficult when the demands for water are so high.

Last year, after years of negotiations, President Donald Trump approved the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan which outlines how much water the seven Colorado River Basin states can take from the river if reservoirs at Lake Powell and Lake Mead drop to critical levels. Despite the plan, Williams said the river still is in danger of drying up.

“The fact that the normal average year is actually getting drier and is projected to keep getting drier in the Colorado River means that we’re probably going to have to revise how much each state is allocated on the Colorado River substantially,” Williams said.

Beyond that, Jacobs stresses the need to elect representatives to the Arizona Legislature who care about the environment and to reach out to current legislators so they know how important tighter water regulations are to Arizonans and the state’s economy.

“Most of the people who come here for tourism are coming because they want to see the beautiful parts of the state,” Jacobs said. “Many of those beautiful parts are connected to rivers and water supplies. There are billions of dollars generated by the state’s economy by people who are here for ecotourism, and we could easily build that into a much more profitable path.”

At the end of the day, the spirit of continued water conservation efforts can be traced back to that image of a young Park Williams on Folsom Lake. The lesson learned, he said, is how precious water is.

“The stakes for humans are higher than they’ve ever been before,” Williams said. “And as we change the climate, one of the things that is most predictable is that the distribution of water is going to change. Trying to figure that out before it really becomes a crisis, I think, is one of the most valuable things we can do.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Lower carbon-capture costs could entice businesses to address climate change

PHOENIX – The Environmental Plan proposed by Republican lawmakers looks to make permanent tax breaks for companies that reduce emissions through carbon capture and other means. The updated proposal, co-sponsored by Rep. David Schweikert of Arizona, comes as more Arizonans are calling for greater action on climate change.

Last week, youth activists gathered in front of Phoenix City Hall demanding the city declare a climate emergency and set a deadline of 2030 for Phoenix to become carbon neutral. Larger protests were held in Arizona in September around the U.N 2019 Climate Action Summit.

Over the past nine months, climate change has been given more attention nationally than ever before – thanks, in part, to November’s presidential election. National news outlets have peppered their coverage of the Democratic primary process with “climate crisis” town halls and forums.

At their debate on Sunday, candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders both called the climate crisis the single biggest threat to national security, with Sanders adding that the crisis actually is about health.

But fighting the crisis won’t come cheap. Sanders’ plan has a price tag of $16 trillion.

Phoenix set long-term goals for sustainability four years ago, with officials focusing on 2024.

“Our biggest challenges are smoke, dust, ozone,” said Misael Cabrera, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Phoenix has until 2024 to reduce ozone levels or the federal government will downgrade the city’s air quality to “serious” from “moderate,” triggering new federal regulations on development.

That would be a huge blow for Phoenix, Cabrera said: “We’re estimating an impact of $250 million per year on job creators and businesses.”

Proposed federal legislation is looking to address this financial consequence of climate change. Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills, is co-author of a plan he says would incentivize businesses to reduce air pollution through tax breaks “so we can maximize clean energy production at really affordable prices.”

His proposal is part of the U.S. House GOP Environmental Plan. In it, tax breaks already in effect would be made permanent for businesses that reduce carbon emissions and purchase upgraded equipment with technology to capture carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

“Embracing this technology and incentivizing it – I think now it has sort of entered everyone’s consciousness, so it’s moving forward,” Schweikert said.

He’s talking about direct-air capture — a process of removing CO2 from the air.

Alan Hatton, a professor of chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has another way of describing it: a way to atone for past transgressions.

“My concern with the legislation and that of my colleagues as well is that we’re just trying to punt the ball down the road a little,” Hatton said. “We’re putting up a bit of a smoke screen because by emphasizing direct air capture, you’re avoiding the real issues associated with fossil fuel emissions.”

But direct-air capture may be necessary in a world that still must use fossil fuels, he said.

“It’s a very expensive process, but I think if you get the right policies in place and the right carbon pricing, et cetera, we should be able to justify the expenditure on doing this,” Hatton said.

Direct-air capture removes carbon dioxide, CO2, from ambient air to reuse or bury deep underground. Hatton favors a process called “point of source” capture, where the business – such as microchip makers and aircraft parts manufacturers – captures emissions before they’re released into the air.

“I think our future depends on it, at least our children’s future,” said Hatton, whose MIT lab spun off a company that’s working to reduce the energy costs of carbon capture.

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The problem for business has been the cost. Carbon capture, whether from the air or from the point of source, is very expensive. That’s because the fuel used to power the technology that removes emissions is expensive, Hatton said, but that also is changing.

“We think the costs can be quite low relative to some of the other costs associated with other processes,” Hatton said, referring to processes that use fossil fuels. “Fossil fuels are going to be around for a long time. There’s no denying that. And we need to find ways to mitigate the CO2 emissions from these fossil fuels.”

Hatton and a colleague have found a way to capture emissions and eliminate the CO2 using renewable energy sources, which makes the process cheaper – up to 80% cheaper, according to initial estimates.

And that may make any legislation focused on tax breaks unnecessary, but the science takes time.

Brian Baynes is co-founder of Verdox, the startup spun off Hatton’s MIT lab.

“The energy cost of capturing carbon has been the main limitation that’s kept it from being a scalable technology today,” he said. “That’s why this problem still exists, is that it just fundamentally takes too much energy with the conventional technologies to capture CO2 or capture carbon from the atmosphere.”

Baynes also said legislation offering incentives or tax breaks doesn’t entice companies when developing and funding carbon capture technology will take much longer.

“So if our policy decisions are being made on a time scale of two years or four years, changing and going back and forth, that’s just not really compatible with the time scale of one of these company’s lifetimes,” he said. “We hope to avoid that entirely by trying to serve other markets that may not rely on policy.”

Schweikert, who represents Arizona’s 6th Congressional District, said the key is getting businesses to opt in, which also takes time.

“They would need a longer window, so we’ve actually updated the legislation to make it functionally permanent in the tax code,” he said.

Lawmakers have met with scientists and the companies that back them, Schweikert said, encouraging them to take corporate responsibility for the climate problem.

The key for the legislation, and for the technology, is to make it affordable, he said.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Why Palo Verde, the country’s largest nuclear plant, is cutting its wastewater use

PHOENIX – There’s something in the Buckeye groundwater – a high mineral and salt content – that makes it hard to use, but the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station wants to tap into that source to reduce the amount of more valuable wastewater it now uses to cool the plant’s three reactors.

The plant uses millions of gallons of treated wastewater, with much of it coming from Phoenix’s 91st Avenue Wastewater Treatment Plant. Heat from nuclear reactions boils water into steam, which turns the turbines that generate electricity. The steam then must be cooled and condensed. Palo Verde is looking for additional water sources to reduce its wastewater use by 20%.

“Water sources that we’ve been looking at are poor-quality groundwater sources that come from the Buckeye waterlogged area,” said Jeffrey Brown, senior consulting engineer for Arizona Public Service, which operates the plant. “We are able to use some of that water instead of effluent (wastewater) because of the tertiary treatment system that we have here at Palo Verde” to remove the salts and minerals.

Water is vital for the generating station because it’s in the desert, about an hour’s drive west of Phoenix. Despite being nowhere near a large body of water, Palo Verde, which is owned in part by Arizona Public Service, is the largest nuclear generating station in the country by net generation. The scale of the production shows in the amount of water used every minute.

Video by Madison Staten/ Cronkite News

“In the winter, we can use up to 40,000 gallons per minute, and that makes up for the evaporation rate of the cooling towers at the nuclear plant. In the summer it’s more, it’s up to 60,000 gallons per minute,” said Rick Lange, the plant manager of Palo Verde Water Resources.

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, believes the real issue isn’t the source of the water but the volume of water the plant uses.

“The utilities say, ‘Wow, OK, we are using the treated wastewater,’ like somehow it’s not a big deal that it’s using so much water,” she said. “Treated wastewater can be used for all kinds of other things, including habitat restoration. So it is water that is not available for other use.”

Now, Palo Verde is looking for additional water sources to cut down on increasing costs for wastewater and to conserve water.

“It’s increasing our power costs,” Brown said. “Our objective was to come up with programs that we could run to replace that effluent with more affordable water sources.”

The idea to use even dirtier water stems from a partnership with Sandia National Labs, a national nuclear research and development laboratory in New Mexico. Researchers at the lab have created models that identify areas of improvement for Palo Verde.

This waterfall moves treated wastewater into one of two reservoirs at a rate of 50,000 gallons per minute to supply water to cool the nuclear reactors at Palo Verde. (Photo by Alicia Moser/Cronkite News)

“We created the partnership because of objectives that we had regarding the production and cooling costs for power operation here in Palo Verde,” Brown said. “One of the things that increases disproportionately is the cost of cooling, which is related to the water that we use.”

The facility wants to implement the use of this dirtier water within the year.

“We already have funding and sightings for the wells,” Lange said. “We just need approval from the state, and we’re working with the state and the farmers in the area to work through issues and get that in place. We plan on this year being able to start pumping water and that will test all these systems.”

Palo Verde plans to continue conservation efforts through the development of additional cooling technology and its continued exploration of other water options.

“You’re going to come back five years from now and work you’re going to say, ‘Wow, you’re using a lot less of that sewage water because you’re being more efficient and you’re coming up with worse, worse sources of water that can meet your needs,’” Lange said.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Activists cite rising heat deaths, pollution, fires in asking Phoenix to declare climate emergency

PHOENIX — Meet Claire Nelson, one of several activists who gathered Monday in front of City Hall to call on city officials to declare a climate emergency.

She is also 17.

A fulltime climate activist, Nelson switched to taking all online classes to focus on her work. That’s why instead of sitting in front of a computer screen, she’s standing at a lectern, representing Arizona Youth Climate Strike and acting as master of ceremony for the event.

“We’ve seen that the city of Phoenix hasn’t been taking adequate action on climate change,” she said. “And this is a crisis and it’s affecting our young people and our vulnerable communities.”

Nelson introduced many voices that have an interest in adapting to a warmer, drier climate. More than 10 Arizona organizations endorse the proposal, including the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, Tiger Mountain Foundation and Extinction Rebellion.

The groups came together to draw attention to specific reasons a climate emergency should be declared – citing a rise in heat related deaths, the increasing severity of wildfires and air pollution, and the increased focus on commercial and residential development as among the reasons.

“The proposal entails first of all, declaring a climate emergency,” said Jean Boucher, an environmental researcher at Arizona State University and member of Extinction Rebellion who was at the protest. “So you can imagine if your house is on fire, the first thing you want to do is let everybody know, ‘Hey, fire, the house is on fire.’ And then after that, what are the appropriate actions?”

The push to declare a climate emergency in Phoenix comes on the heels of a similar effort in Flagstaff this year. The City Council is considering passing a resolution later this month after residents petitioned the city. It would establish the goal of making the city carbon neutral by 2030 and would revise the goals of the Flagstaff Climate Action and Adaptation Plan to sync with the U.N. report on global carbon emissions, which scientists say is driving climate change.

For Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club, the appropriate actions will be determined in conjunction with Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the nation and among the fastest growing. She hopes to meet with city officials this month.

Sydney Perkins, 18, was one of more than a dozen people who gathered outside Phoenix City Hall to ask officials to declare a climate emergency. (Photo by Madison Staten/ Cronkite News)

“A lot of it has to do with doing more sooner, and making sure that what’s in the plans is actually reflected in the budget that they (Phoenix) put together,” Bahr said. “Because that’s often where we see action on many issues, including climate, fall down is that they put together a plan or they sign a resolution, but then they don’t reflect the actions that are needed in the budget.”

Phoenix officials have invited the Sierra Club to meet with them to discuss the issue. They point to their heat mitigation programs, and the city’s recent induction into the global C40 Cities Network as concrete action they have taken toward meeting sustainability goals set for 2050.

“Climate change, and a warming planet, threatens public health, infrastructure, and our economy,” Mayor Kate Gallego, told Cronkite News in a statement. “Issues of extreme heat and poor air quality – if unaddressed – will have severe repercussions and hinder our city’s continued success. The city of Phoenix is fully committed to addressing this challenge head on.”

In the meantime, Nelson will continue her efforts going with the Youth Climate Strike, and she implores others to get involved.

“There are a whole bunch of amazing climate organizations,” Nelson said. “The first step would be to follow us on social media. … We can usually direct you to any environmental organization that would fit you best or that you want to work with. There are plenty of ways to get involved.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Verde River watershed gets a grade of C+, but that ‘actually is very good’

CAMP VERDE — The Verde River stretches more than 170 miles from north-central Arizona and down through metro Phoenix, bringing life to the landscape, people and wildlife. This month, the river was rated a C+ in the first Verde Watershed Report Card.

The report, released Feb. 18, took into account the quality of the habitat, the community and the water in and along the river.

“What we see in the Watershed Report Card is kind of the impacts of drought and climate change, but also of that increasing human population,” said Kimberly Schonek, the Verde River project manager for The Nature Conservancy.

The Nature Conservancy and Friends of the Verde River produced the report card in conjunction with stakeholders, the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

The Verde River, which flows more than 170 miles, starts in north-central Arizona and winds down into the Phoenix Valley. The Verde River Watershed Report Card, released earlier this month, addresses habitat, community and water conditions. (Photo by Michael Hannan/Cronkite News)

Nancy Steele, the executive director of Friends of the River Verde, said a C+ grade does not mean the Verde is close to failing.

“Now a lot of people are saying, well, C’s not a great grade, but it actually is very good,” Steele said. “There’s a lot of river systems around the world that are doing much, much worse. We’ve got a healthy river system here.”

Keeping the river healthy is a priority for rancher Jeni O’Callaghan, whose ranch includes a stretch of the Verde.

“We feed our beef, and they’re mostly grass-fed. And so we need grass, and grass doesn’t grow without water,” O’Callaghan said. “We have been irrigating our fields for some time. Currently, we’re in a project with Nature Conservancy to put in irrigation sprinklers as opposed to a flood irrigation.”

The Nature Conservancy is seeking to ensure that others follow O’Callaghan’s example of diverting water responsibly. Schonek said this is especially important because of the decline of the base flow in the Verde River over the past 20 years. The base flow, or the amount of water in the river before rainfall, was a key finding in the report.

Kimberly Schonek, the Verde River project manager for The Nature Conservancy, has worked for over 11 years to improve the quality of the watershed. (Photo by Michael Hannan/Cronkite News)

“That’s probably the most concerning score; we got a D on that,” Schonek said. “We really need to think about that, because that’s being impacted by drought. The amount of water going into the aquifer, and then by the amount of water being taken out by things like groundwater pumping, and surface water diversions.”

Protecting the river for the public is of high interest to the Forest Service, which provided funding for the report card.

“Keeping the the watersheds healthy through the scorecard, increasing awareness of the public, of the health of those watersheds, ultimately furthers both what the (Phoenix) Valley needs in terms of its water supply, as well as what the Forest Service is aiming for, which is to protect the water supply for our public,” said Kelly Mott Lacroix, a Tonto National Forest hydrologist and watershed program manager.

The Forest Service provided funding to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 2018. Sections of the Verde River are protected under the act, making it one of only two Arizona rivers to have that distinction.

“We’re thinking about what that wild and scenic river needs,” Schonek said. “It needs good water quality. It needs to continue to flow. We need fish. We need the uplands in our watershed to be healthy.”

The Nature Conservancy and Friends of the Verde River are working to ensure those needs will continue to be met in the future.

The Verde River Watershed received a C+ grade overall. However, Friends of the Verde River Executive Director Nancy Steele says this is not a negative finding, and the river is doing quite well. (Photo by Michael Hannan/Cronkite News)

“We have spent so much time over the last 10 years creating priorities around preserving this habitat, around removing invasive non-native species,” Steele said.

Steele said they are now working to plant cottonwood trees, a species native to the area, near the river to increase healthy places for wildlife to live. She believes the life this river brings is not limited to the ecosystem.

“I’ve always felt that connection, especially to our desert rivers, that there’s something magical about a desert river,” she said. “And the Verde is that way, too. I come upon it, and it’s magic. You just feel, you know, you’re in a place that’s a ribbon of life.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Four Corners Drought Intensified By Human-Induced Warming

The Four Corners drought of 2017 and 2018 caused $3 billion in losses and led the Navajo Nation to issue an emergency drought declaration.

Now, new research in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society suggests a sizable portion of the drought’s impacts stemmed from human-induced climate change.

“We’re going to keep seeing temperature rise, meaning we’re going to keep seeing these extreme events, these impacts occurring, and that makes it really important to start thinking about adaptation,” said co-author Emily Williams, a doctoral student at University of California, Santa Barbara.

In addition to UC Santa Barbara colleagues Chris Funk and Shraddhanand Shukla, Daniel McEvoy of the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, Nevada, contributed to the research.

The Four Corners drought was intensified by the hottest regional temperatures on record, and occurred during a severe meteorological drought.

Unusually high temperatures worsen droughts in the Southwest by reducing snowpack and causing snow to melt earlier, depriving affected areas of seasonal river flows.

They also increase the amount of water the atmosphere can hold, making air “thirstier” and causing it to pull moisture from plants and soil.

According to model simulations, human-induced warming added 2.3 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (1.3 to 2.0 C) to that heat—parching soil and shrinking plant coverage by 18–30 percent and making poor rangeland conditions worse.
It also drained away 20 percent of potential snowpack meltwater.

Williams said events like these reveal climate change already at work.

“And this drought, which hurt so much of the interior of the U.S., is one of those examples of what climate change looks like in the here and now,” she said.

As available water is exhausted, an additional feedback between land and water can occur: As evaporation, which absorbs latent heat and cools the area, becomes impossible, sensible heat can climb even higher.

“If this is happening in a really dry environment and there’s no more moisture in the soil that will then lead to even greater temperature rise,” said Williams.

Because the study did not model such effects, its results likely reflect a conservative estimate of the impacts of human-induced warming.

Arizona’s Groundwater Replenishment Program Facing an Uncertain Future

PHOENIX — A key water management tool that sustains housing development in central Arizona does not have a rosy future, according to a new report from Arizona State University.

The report looks at the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, which the Legislature established in 1993 to assure the replenishment of groundwater that’s tapped for development.

Developers and, by extension, home buyers, can pump and purchase groundwater and then pay into the program; the district then has to replenish the water that serves those homes. This is a way to meet the state’s water management goals and comply with the legally required 100-year water supply.

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But the report outlines several concerns about the specific rules that govern the replenishment district and casts doubt on the district’s ability to find water to meet expected obligations.

One concern is that the replenished water does not have to be returned to the same place where it originally was pumped. The district only has to put water back into the larger active management area, and the recharged water doesn’t necessarily migrate to where it’s needed.

“It’s an unsustainable practice,” said Kathy Ferris with ASU’s Kyl Center for Water Policy, the report’s co-author. “There are so many different aquifers and layers. There are seven subbasins. And water doesn’t just move around like it’s in a bathtub. Sometimes it doesn’t move at all, depending on where it’s recharged.”

There are five active management areas in central Arizona. The one in Phoenix, for example, covers 5,646 square miles.

Another concern is financial. As water in Arizona becomes more expensive, some homeowners enrolled in the replenishment district have looked for water that’s cheaper than the original source the developer identified for its required 100-year water supply. A different source may free homeowners from paying an annual charge for replenishment.

The problem, the report said, is that the district still must find and pay for water “to meet the member’s long-term replenishment obligation.”

Depending on how many homeowners use this cheaper-source strategy, it could mean consistent expenses but lower revenues for the replenishment district, which has fixed costs that do not fluctuate depending on how much water needs to be replenished that year.

Ferris cited a consultant’s report from 2017 that said if all of the Phoenix area lands enrolled in the replenishment district used this workaround, the result would be “financially catastrophic.” The consultant’s policy recommendations involved legal or regulatory changes that have not been enacted.

The ASU report also raises concerns over the amount of water the replenishment district is expected to need to meet its current and projected obligations, especially at a time of shortage conditions on the Colorado River, the state’s largest source of surface water.

The district’s board also runs the Central Arizona Project canal system. In a statement, the agency pointed out it “was charged with the statutory obligation to manage the CAGRD since its inception more than 25 years ago,” saying it “has fulfilled this duty effectively, demonstrating fiscal responsibility while securing a robust water supply portfolio that will be available through the mid-2030s.”

CAP also acknowledged in the statement that its part of the discussion over where growth will happen in urban areas especially Maricopa County.

“CAP welcomes the opportunity to be part of it, but given that the focus of this conversation would be beyond CAP’s CAGRD responsibilities, CAP may not be the appropriate entity to convene and lead this conversation.”

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The agency does not have the legal authority to reject new enrollees in the groundwater replenishment program. The Arizona Department of Water Resources does have some oversight because it approves a 10-year plan for the district and can later reverse an approval.

But the report said “such a decision will be politically difficult, will not stop the sale of previously enrolled but unconstructed lots, and will not address CAGRD’s continuing replenishment obligations for its current members.” It recommends authorizing the program to deny accepting new members if needed.

A spokeswoman at the water resources department declined to comment on the ASU report, saying it had not yet been reviewed.

The report comes on the heels of the state releasing its own water bombshell: a new model for the Pinal Active Management Area that shows an expected shortfall of more than 8 million acre-feet of water. An acre-foot is enough water to cover 1 acre of land with 1 foot of water, enough to supply a family of four for a year.

“I think that the Pinal situation demonstrates that as time has gone on, we’ve learned more and more about our groundwater resources,” Ferris said. “And our scientific ways of assessing how much groundwater is there have dramatically changed. Nobody’s talking about the fact that, well, even if there was enough groundwater, if it’s all used up, it gets all used up.

“Then what?”

‘Like the Chain Saw’: Drones Have Become a Lifesaving Tool for Fighting Wildfires

MIAMI, Ariz. – The whir of aerial drones provided a distinct soundtrack to the month it took to contain the Woodbury Fire, which ranks as the fifth-largest wildfire in Arizona history.

The fire burned nearly 124,000 acres of the Superstition Wilderness and the Tonto National Monument, difficult terrain that made putting firefighters on the ground a dangerous move.

“Our main value is firefighter safety and public safety,” said Dick Fleishman, a fire information officer for the Coconino National Forest. “We’re not going to put people in this ground where we can barely get them in and out of there.”

That leaves the creation of situational awareness, scale-mapping and infrared imagery to unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones.

Chris Mariano takes a Matrice 600 drone for a test flight in June. Last year, the Bureau of Land Management had 531 drones and 359 operators in its service. (Photo by Anton L. Delgado/News21)

In the past eight years, the number of federal drone flights has grown to 10,342 in 2018 from 260 in 2010, according to the Department of Interior. In Arizona, drone usage has increased by 184% in the past two years.

Justin Baxter, a drone fire operations specialist, and his three-man team flew a Matrice 600 (M600) during the Woodbury Fire, which broke out June 8 about 5 miles northwest of Superior. The blaze is 100% contained, fire officials said this week, but it continues to burn and certain roads and campgrounds remain closed.

“We’ve been doing a lot on this fire with infrared work just based on how rugged the terrain is,” Baxter said.

Many of his team’s missions involved assessing scorched land. The drone’s infrared and normal cameras allow operators to compare surface temperature as they search for hotspots, which can ignite new fires.

Drones can’t put out fires, but they can start backburns by dropping plastic balls filled with flammable liquids. (Photo by Anton L. Delgado/News21)

“The drones are not putting out the fires,” Baxter said. “Somebody still needs to go in there and put it out. But we can mitigate some of the risk, some of the exposure and identify areas of concern a little bit sooner.”

Although the drones can’t put out fires, they can start them. Attachable infrared cameras and plastic-sphere dispensers equip drones to ignite and monitor backburns, a firefighting tactic used to reduce flammable materials that could fuel an oncoming wildfire.

The dispensers drop what Baxter calls “pingpong balls” filled with two chemicals that combine to set off small fires. The drones then monitor these fires as they burn brush, letting firefighters focus on other mitigation and suppression techniques during an active wildfire.

“Drones are a new technology that we’re trying to implement,” said Ryan Berlin, a mitigation and education specialist who was flown in from Idaho for the Woodbury Fire. “We’re still in the infancy of the drones.”

As of 2018, the Bureau of Land Management had 531 drones and 359 operators in its service and provided support during earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, animal migrations and search and rescues.

According to the Department of Interior’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Program 2018 Use Report, the 10,342 flights in 2018 totaled 1,785 hours in air, a more than 100% increase in both flights and hours in air from 2017. These flights occurred in 42 states and at least two territories, with more than half of them in Hawaii, Oregon, Alaska, Colorado and Idaho.

Arizona had the eighth-highest number of drone flights in 2018, with 570. Although statistics for 2019 won’t be available until the end of the year, drone usage in Arizona is likely to have increased, as this fire season already has burned more land than in all of 2018, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center.

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At the end of 2018, President Donald Trump signed an executive order promoting Interior’s search for new wildfire management, mitigation and suppression techniques. One of the provisions called for agencies to “maximize appropriate use of unmanned aerial systems” – drones, or UAS – in wildfire fighting and recovery.

With support from the White House and data showing increasing interest in federal drone usage, Baxter looks forward to seeing the program grow.

“I hope that this tool is just like the chain saw. You’re going to have the EMT that carries a first aid kit. The sawyer that carries the chain saw and the UAS pilot that carries the UAS,” Baxter said. “Instead of exposing a helicopter pilot to a recon flight or a captain of a crew to hike a ridge nobody’s ever been up, give them give them the tools to make their job just a little bit safer.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

As Southwest Water Managers Grapple with Climate Change, Can a ‘Grand Bargain’ Work?

BOULDER, Colo. – Water managers on the Colorado River are facing a unique moment. With a temporary fix to the river’s scarcity problem recently completed, talk is turning toward future agreements to better manage the water source for 40 million people across the Southwest.

Climate change, growing populations and fragile rural economies are top of mind. Some within the vast basin see a window of opportunity to argue for big, bold actions to find balance in the watershed. Others say the best path forward is to take small, incremental steps toward lofty goals, a method Colorado River managers say has worked well for them for decades.

That tension was on full display at a June gathering of water agency leaders, environmentalists, scientists and federal bureaucrats in Boulder, where they reflected on the recently signed Colorado River drought contingency plans and began to envision what might be included in a long-term solution.

(The conference at the University of Colorado’s Getches-Wilkinson Center was sponsored in part by the Walton Family Foundation, which also provides funding for KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.)

John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program, and Eric Kuhn, former general manager of the Colorado River District, used the opportunity to shop around a concept they call the “grand bargain,” which they say would address the basin’s fundamental imbalance between supply and demand.

In their new book “Science Be Dammed: How Ignoring Inconvenient Science Drained the Colorado River,” Fleck and Kuhn say scientists always have warned against promising too much water to too many people but were sidelined by politicians looking to grow crops and cities. That led to inflated figures in the Colorado River Compact of 1922 that plague water managers today. The original sin was putting more water on paper than existed in the real world.

That problem has been made clear by a 20-year drought that pushed the river’s biggest reservoirs – Lakes Mead and Powell – to their lowest collective volume since Powell filled in 1980. Studies show that climate change already is sapping the Colorado’s flow, accelerating evaporation and shrinking the snowpack that feeds it.

Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the country, has been dropping for years, and if it dips too low, it could trigger a mandatory delivery cuts in the Lower Colorado River Basin. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The 1922 compact, which is considered the cornerstone of the “Law of the River,” split the Colorado River Basin into two legal and geographic entities: Upper (Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico) and Lower (California, Arizona and Nevada). The compact promised each basin 7.5 million acre feet of water each year, to be split among the states of each basin. A later agreement promised Mexico 1.5 million acre feet of water from the river, without specifying which basin was responsible for delivering it.

To get the compact signed, leaders in both basins agreed to measure the river’s flow at a place just downstream of where Glen Canyon Dam sits today and use it as a point of reference. If the amount of water measured at that point ever dipped below the contracted amount in subsequent years, the Lower Basin could call for its water, shutting off users in the Upper Basin if need be.

That hypothetical move is called a Compact Call, and if it happened, water managers worry it would set off a cascade of events across the Upper Basin, forcing cities, farmers and industry alike to cut some or all of their use. It would also likely throw all the Colorado River states into a prolonged fight before the Supreme Court.

Fleck and Kuhn say the grand bargain would rebalance some of the compact’s bad math. In it, the Lower Basin would agree to abandon that longstanding right to demand water from the Upper Basin if it runs short.

In exchange, the Upper Basin would agree to a cap on future water development. For more than a decade, the Upper Basin has used about 4.5 million acre-feet of water annually, well below its compact cap of 7.5 million. But a slate of projects in the Upper Basin represent an attempt to tap into that unused entitlement.

Capping the Upper Basin’s usage and removing the Lower Basin’s ability to call for water would make the whole system more resilient, Fleck said.

“Then both sides are giving up a cherished right and (agreeing to) a compromise that has the potential to then bring some stability and balance in the long run and remove a lot of the risk of really catastrophic conflict,” he said.

The threat of a compact call from the Lower Basin and the visions of big new reservoirs in the Upper Basin are driving all kinds of self-serving behavior, Fleck said.

But for the bargain to work, water managers throughout the basin need to convince themselves and their state’s leaders of one thing: There is no more additional water to be had in the Colorado River basin.

“Managing to the amount of water we actually have may sound intuitive and logical, but we’ve never actually done it on this river,” John Entsminger, general manger of Southern Nevada Water Authority, said at the Boulder conference.

Within the next year and a half, he and other water managers will sit down to figure out life beyond 2026. That’s the deadline to come up with a new set of guidelines to manage the Colorado River, last agreed to in 2007. Entsminger listed his top priorities in those negotiations, including a discussion of limiting new Upper Basin uses. Without addressing that, he said, it would be hard to get a comprehensive deal done.

“For us to be successful we’ve all got to lose,” Entsminger said. “The future of this river is less water and we’re all going to have to get by with less.”

But tinkering too much with the river’s legal underpinnings doesn’t sit well with Pat Tyrrell, former Wyoming state engineer and the state’s representative on the Upper Colorado River Commission.

“What you cannot do is cap at our existing level of development without saying to essentially the four Upper Basin states, ‘We’re going to let you die on the vine,’” Tyrrell said. “We have to have room to develop.

“You can’t go to Utah and say, ‘You can’t have any more kids.’”

Tyrrell suggested Lower Basin states “go to the ocean,” meaning making bigger investments in desalination to provide additional freshwater, before lecturing Upper Basin states that they need to cut back.

“If we try to open or amend the compact, I think the results will be horrible,” Tyrrell said.

That’s a familiar refrain from a state well below its current entitlement to Colorado River basin water, with plans to tap more.

But Eric Kuhn, one of the grand bargain’s proponents, said the Upper Basin has been using roughly the same amount of water for years, while population continued to grow.

“One of the myths that we have to break is that economic prosperity requires a higher consumptive use,” Kuhn said.

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Busting the myth of population growth or booming economies requiring greater volumes of water will be key to getting a deal done that adequately addresses climate change, Kuhn said, “so we can sell some of the ideas that will be necessary, to live with what we got, not what we thought we had 100 years ago on the river.”

The tension between the incremental, conservative approach of risk-averse water managers and the alarm-bell-ringing of climate scientists and environmentalists will certainly play into the renegotiation of the 2007 guidelines.

“Everyone knows climate change is a big deal, but the efforts and the steps that we’re taking are incremental steps that aren’t getting us where we need to get fast enough,” said Jen Pelz, wild rivers program director for the conservation group WildEarth Guardians.

The incremental approach works when you have many parties trying to come up with a solution and unwilling to give up too much in a compromise, she said. The revolutionary approach requires an acknowledgement that real danger exists.

“I think the Colorado River is in deep danger,” Pelz said.

Water managers conceive of the Colorado River as existing to deliver water to people, Pelz said. What’s often lost in lofty discussions about law and policy is that the river is integral to how ecosystems function in the Southwest.

“There’s a huge blind spot around what the environment needs,” Pelz said. “Who’s going to provide that vision for the environment? It’s not going to be the water managers. That’s not their constituency.”

Luke Runyon reports for KUNC, based in Greeley, Colorado. Bret Jaspers reports for KJZZ in Phoenix. KUNC assistant news director Erin O’Toole contributed to this report.

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Lawn Be Gone: Major Western Cities Pay Residents to Ditch Grass to Save Water

DENVER — It’s hard to avoid getting swept up in Wendy Inouye’s enthusiasm when she talks about her garden.

“I love it!” she gushes. “I have so much joy from my garden. Every time I come out I always pause and look at it. You know that saying, take time to smell the roses? I literally do that every single day I come and go from my home.”

Inouye’s front yard at her home in Thornton, Colorado, just north of Denver, is full of “xeric” plants—shrubs and groundcovers adapted to survive in dry climates.

Inouye took out her lawn last summer and replaced it with a Colorado-friendly landscape, including red rock penstemon, hopflower oregano, and a plant called red-birds-in-a-tree. She didn’t want to waste any more water and said the grass in her front yard had no function. It was in full sun and its water needs were astronomical. By taking out 750 square feet of turf and replacing it with a variety of water-saving plants surrounded by rocks and mulch, she and her husband have reduced their water usage from 413 gallons a day to 200.

Pointing to a larger area Inouye said, “This was just one big flat piece of grass that was full of weeds.” She was tired of fighting nature, using pesticides and herbicides. Now she says, she has fun with all her beautiful flowering plants.

Ditching the “Green Carpet”

It was a lot of work for Inouye to transform her landscape even though she hired contractors to assist with turf removal and changes to her irrigation system. But she got support for her decision from the City of Thornton through a turf removal rebate program that paid her $1.00 for every square foot of turf she took out.

Water conservation and efficiency are important to every utility across the country, and especially in the West where “aridification” is occurring. That’s the term being used in the Colorado River Basin to describe the region’s transition to a water scarce environment due to climate change—a condition that will result in a shrinking supplies.

Water utilities have various strategies to get customers to lower usage. Many offer rebates for installing low-flow toilets and efficient showerheads in older homes to reduce indoor use. With outdoor use, water providers can use “cash-for-grass” incentives as Thornton did for Wendy Inouye. They can also offer free mulch, rebates for efficient irrigation systems, and audits of outside water use.

Recently the Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE), a non-profit dedicated to efficient and sustainable use of water, produced an assessment concluding that utility-sponsored programs to promote sustainable landscapes save water. Tom Chestnutt, the lead author of AWE’s study, said that turf removal programs have been very successful, and they hit that tipping point causing customers to do something different with their front yards.

The idea of a “green carpet”—lots of grass in front of homes, buildings, and sometimes, even medians—has been described as an aesthetic (inappropriately, many say) imported from the East. In the West, where lawns require irrigation, some water providers see them as out of sync with a western lifestyle.

“Grass? That’s Weird!”

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWDSC) is the largest water supply district in the United States, serving 19 million customers.

Bill McDonnell, the conservation manager for MWDSC, said that they started asking why do people realistically need to have a 1,500 square-foot rectangle of grass in their front yard that they’re never using? Mowing, fertilizing, adding waste, McDonnell said, “There’s a lot going on there to have a green patch.”

So they started to pay people to take out their lawns.

MWDSC has the largest cash-for-grass program in the country, and its board recently renewed the program increasing the rebate to $2.00 per square foot removed—even though there’s not a current drought emergency.

McDonnell said that when they began turf replacement rebates people went crazy. “People were like, ‘I want this, I don’t want to be watering my lawn; I want a smaller water bill.'”

In Southern California, people irrigate their yards 12 months of the year, and on average, 50 to 60 percent of a home’s use of water is outside. Farther east in the district where it can get really hot, a water bill could easily be based on as much as 70 percent for outdoor use.

In an email, Rebecca Kimitch, who works with McDonnell at MWDSC, said they estimate the water savings from turf removal to be 44 gallons of water annually for every square foot of grass taken out.

McDonnell tells his children that someday they’ll be walking down the street with their kids who will point to a yard with grass and say, “That’s weird.” The whole idea, he says, is to flip it so that the person with grass will be the one who is different.

Enough Lawn to Wrap Nearly Around the Globe

Southern California is not alone in incentivizing customers to transform their landscapes. Doug Bennett, Conservation Manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), agrees with McDonnell that having lots of grass serves no functional purpose. The Las Vegas area is the driest metropolitan area in North America, so conservation is always forefront.

SNWA has been running a turf replacement rebate program nearly 20 years and has saved almost 13 billion gallons a year. Bennett said, “There is no room in this city for ‘keep off the grass’ signs,” meaning all grass must be used, not there solely for ornamental or aesthetic purposes.

When asked if SNWA’s program had been successful, Bennett said, “Absolutely. We’re at about 190,000,000 square feet” of turf removed. To illustrate this he said, “That’s enough sod, 18 inches wide to go 95 percent of the way around the world.” But he added that they still have a long way to go having addressed only about half of the non-functional turf in the area.

Turf Removal Rebates – A “Gimmick”?

Given that two of the largest water providers in the drying Southwest region are deploying “cash-for-grass” programs, one might assume that the idea took off in other major cities. And it has—except in two cases—Denver, Colorado, and Phoenix, Arizona.

Phoenix, Arizona, is the country’s fifth largest city, and its water department serves about 1.5 million people. The city doesn’t offer a turf replacement rebate, and Cynthia Campbell, the Water Resource Management Advisor for Phoenix said that even without one, there has been a 30 percent decline in water use overall since about 1980.

Campbell said that in the late 1970s about 80 percent of single-family homes had a majority of their landscaping in turf, but today that number has dropped to about 14 percent.

Even with the decline in turf use, Phoenix homeowners are still using about 60 percent of their water outside their homes. However, Campbell views some conservation rebates as reactive to a special event like the drought in California. Those programs can “take on a gimmick kind of idea,” she said, “unless they can be sustainable for the long haul.” Instead, she thinks that Phoenix is better off trying to educate the public about how to use water in a desert, instead of saying that this year they’re going to pay residents to rip out their grass.

Campbell also noted that the pricing in Phoenix may discourage grass watering, especially during the summer months. A homeowner who wants to water then would be a heavier user and would pay more for it.

But many cities surrounding Phoenix—Glendale, Scottsdale, Mesa, Chandler, Peoria, and Tempe—offer turf replacement rebates.

Glendale, Arizona, is a city of about 240,000. Joanne Toms, its Environmental Program Manager, said they have had a rebate program since 1986. She roughly estimates that an acre of turf converted to desert landscaping saves about a million gallons. Toms said that she would hate to see the rebate program dropped because it shows the city’s leadership and forward-thinking that began in the 1980s. She sees the rebates as an incentive to homeowners who may be on the fence about whether to convert.

Lawns As a “Dispersed Version of a Reservoir”

In comparison to cities in the Southwest, Denver has a semi-arid climate—it gets more precipitation in the spring and summer and has winters—meaning people don’t have to water year-round to maintain a landscape.

A cash-for-grass program would not result in nearly as much water savings as in drier regions. Still, such an incentive could save water. However, Denver Water, the largest provider in Colorado, has decided it’s not a wise use of customers’ money.

Jeff Tejral, the manager of water efficiency for Denver Water, says there has already been a lot of change in customers’ landscapes without a turf replacement rebate program. Similar to the city of Phoenix, Tejral attributes the switch to a public education program that Denver Water started in the 1980s.

In addition, Tejral says that Denver Water did an analysis of a cash-for-grass rebate in 2016 and it did not make sense to start one. Tejral’s group calculated the water savings and the cost of the rebates to be $75,000 dollars per acre foot of water conserved, which the agency concluded was not a wise use of its ratepayers’ funds. He said that it would make sense to spend that amount, if they were in dire straits, and a turf rebate were the last option available.

However, there may be another reason that Denver Water doesn’t have a turf removal program—lawns might be a safety net where use could be restricted in extreme drought conditions. At those times of severe need, Denver Water could drastically cut back outdoor usage which would be tolerated more easily than restricting use inside homes. Cutting back lawn watering is much easier to get customers to accept than limiting their shower times or their clothes washings.

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This idea was expressed by Colorado University historian Patricia Nelson Limerick in the book she wrote about Denver Water, Ditch in Time: The City, the West and Water. As Limerick writes, Denver water managers see lawns offering a service that is far from evident to most observers. Lawns are devices that receive water that would otherwise bypass Denver unused. She adds that lawns offer a cushion if severe drought should arise, and without that cushion demand would be hardened. “Take out the lawns and water would be directed only to needs that would not be susceptible to restriction.” Limerick writes that to the late Chips Barry, former manager of the Denver Water Department, lawns looked a lot like a dispersed version of a reservoir, holding water that could, in urgent circumstances, be shifted to respond to genuine need.

In response, Tejral said that they are shifting away from viewing turf the way Barry did. He insists there are other benefits to having lawns and landscapes in general, and it’s important to manage landscapes for what is best in the long term for a lot of different purposes, which could include aesthetic. He said that Chips Barry was reflecting on where Denver was, but as it matures as a city and integrates with others, people are going to have to learn the true function of landscapes, which is complicated.

Similar to the municipalities surrounding Phoenix, Front Range municipalities near Denver including Thornton, Centennial Water and Sanitation District (Highlands Ranch), Fort Collins, and Aurora all have rebates for removing grass.

One might think that Tejral would be a big advocate for such an incentive program. Before he worked at Denver Water, Tejral worked at Aurora Water, the water provider for the city of Aurora, just to the east of Denver, and he helped start that utility’s turf rebate program. But, he said, while the two cities are adjacent, Aurora started in a different place than Denver, and the former was more turf-centric. In contrast to Denver, not a lot of people in Aurora were modeling the change to either xeric or more water-efficient landscapes. That led Aurora to start a turf rebate program, in Tejral’s words, “to catch up to what its bigger neighbor Denver had been doing for some time.”

“Smarter Than…Dams, Reservoirs, and Pipelines”

Ten years ago, Drew Beckwith was with Western Resource Advocates, an environmental organization. At that time he told the Boulder Daily Camera, when talking about Denver Water’s plans to expand its water supply in nearby Gross Reservoir, the agency had done a great job with conservation, but what it lacked is what others offer: cash-for-grass incentives.

Beckwith recently moved into the public sector and is now the Water Resources Specialist with another Denver neighbor, the City of Westminster. That municipality plans to offer turf replacement rebates next summer. He said 50 percent of Westminster’s drinking water supplies go to outdoor use, and just like other cities, the water used on grass and plants is highly treated to drinking quality standards, not a cheap process.

According to Beckwith, conservation through cash-for-grass and other incentives, is cheaper, faster, and smarter than building structural projects like dams, reservoirs, and pipelines. He noted there is a cultural shift going on along Colorado’s Front Range moving toward more “Colorado-friendly” landscapes, and Westminster wants to spur that shift.

Meanwhile, back in Thornton, Colorado, Wendy Inouye admires her xeriscape where grass used to be. She said that the rebate she got covered only about a tenth of her conversion expenses. But transforming her landscape gave her the sense that she is doing something for the planet, the community, and herself. And, she added, the rebate made her feel like the city is on the same mission as she is.

This story was first published by H2Oradio.org on July 16, 2019 and was republished by Elemental: Covering Sustainability with permission . You can see the original report here.